Ontario fire chiefs say decision to dump Renfrew chief is illegal

The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs says Renfrew town council's decision to retire its fire chief at age 60 is illegal, and they don't want it to set a precedent.

'This could have far-reaching impact,' Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs says

Renfrew fire chief Guy Longtin is fighting a decision by the town council to force his retirement, and sent a letter to the mayor last week threatening a lawsuit. (Facebook)

The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC) says Renfrew town council's decision to retire its fire chief at age 60 is illegal, and they don't want it to set a precedent.

"We feel that actions to mandate a retirement age for fire chiefs contravenes the Fire Protection and Prevention Act (FPPA)," said Steve Hernen, president of the association.

"To my knowledge this is a first," said Hernen, who is also the fire chief for the Town of Huntsville. "This could have far-reaching impact if other municipalities decided to enforce the same rules."

On May 7, Renfrew town council decided in a closed-door meeting to make 60 the mandatory retirement age for its fire chief, in keeping with current Ontario rules for frontline firefighters.

The town's fire chief, 61-year-old Guy Longtin, was forced to retire immediately following the vote, and he has since threatened to file a $1.7-million lawsuit in the case.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Longtin said he's encouraged by the association's position. 

Is the chief a frontline firefighter?

It comes down to a legal dispute over the FPPA's mandatory retirement rules for frontline firefighters, and whether the chief is considered a frontline firefighter.

Town Reeve Peter Emon argues Renfrew is well within its rights to require the chief's retirement, because chiefs perform frontline firefighter duties in the role of incident commander.

But Hernen said incident commanding is a small part of the chief's job. Longtin estimated he'd been Renfrew's incident commander, which involves managing fire crews at a scene, on two occasions in the last year.

Emon conceded he didn't actually know how much time the chief spent in the role.  

"I haven't gone back through his records, and that's not something I should be doing as a municipal politician, frankly," Emon said. But he cited previous rulings by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal and the Ontario court allowing for mandatory retirement for staff involved in incident command.

Hernen pointed out none of those legal precedents involved a fire chief, only unionized firefighters.

Mandatory retirement illegal, OAFC says

More central to the association's position is the mandatory retirement rule itself.

"They've extended it to the fire chief and they shouldn't have," Hernen said.

Lawyers for the association helped the OAFC develop a position shared with CBC.

It states:

  • The OAFC mandatory retirement should not include fire chiefs since the act deliberately excludes people in "managerial functions."
  • The OAFC does not support the dismissal of a chief fire officer who regularly exercises managerial functions based on the grounds of his or her age. 
Former fire chief Guy Longtin was forced into mandatory retirement. (Guy Longtin)

Stakes high for Ontario chiefs

Hernen noted the stakes in the matter are high for fire chiefs across the province.

The association represents fire chiefs in 448 municipalities, or about 96 per cent of all chiefs in Ontario, according to the president.

"It's not uncommon to find the fire chief over the age of 60 in the province," he said.

In fact, Arnprior, Ont. hired a fire chief at age 60 last year. 

"You'd be limiting the applicants for this job," Hernen said. "Keep in mind this is a managerial role, which requires experience, so you'd be taking a large group with knowledge out of the service."

Town lawyer responds to lawsuit threat

Meanwhile Wednesday, Renfrew's lawyer responded formally to the legal letter Longtin sent last week, which threatened a lawsuit if the city doesn't reconsider its decision.

The town's response again offered Longtin a package including two year's salary and gratitude for his 26 years of service, he said.

He'll continue to fight for the rights of all Ontario chiefs and seniors facing age discrimination, he said.

The association won't get involved in the threatened legal case at this stage, Hernen said, but added that members will be watching closely.

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